Feeling a little adventurous like Indiana Jones? Well, just imagine descending into the gaping mouth of a cavernous sinkhole in the middle of a jungle. A vertical shaft of sunlight illuminates the space, while tinkling waterfalls echo in the darkness surrounding you. As you gain your footing in the knee-deep lagoon, you shine a flashlight around to find yourself in a crystalized cave with high, vaulted ceilings and stalactite-lined walls that appear as if sculpted by gods. Any anxiety you might have felt during the descent has been instantly replaced by awe.
The ancient Maya people felt the same way whenever they entered these natural sinkholes, called cenotes. Crucial to their survival, cenotes exposed fresh groundwater and underground cave rivers that pulsed like mystic veins throughout their realm. And like how these rivers helped sustain the Maya people with a steady supply of water; this maze of caves and cenotes memorialize and keep an ancient culture alive through timeless tales about their mysterious traditions and revealing artifacts.
What’s the Real Backstory on These Caves?
Mayas believed cenotes were portals to a magical underworld called Xibalba, which, roughly translated, meant place of awe or place of fear, depending on how easily you get spooked. According to legend, 12 Maya gods ruled this subterranean kingdom, which included grand houses, a ball-court, gardens and temples that rivaled the ones above. Back then, visitors had to pass through great obstacles and cross scorpion-filled rivers to experience this world; nowadays, travelers simply go to Belize.
That is where you will find the Actun Tunichil Muknal, which Mayas called the "Cave of the Stone Sepulcher" and tourists call ATM. A short drive and a hike from Belize City, this well-preserved snapshot into Maya culture features skeletal remains, Maya pottery and ceremonial artifacts—most of which you can see exactly where it was found.
Oh, The Places You Will Go!
To reach the cave, you’ll first take a captivating 45-minute hike through shallow rivers and swaying jungles of the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, where you just might catch a glimpse of howler monkeys and the Baird’s tapir, the country’s national animal. The entrance to ATM is hard to miss—a striking hourglass-shaped hole in the side of a hill, with clear, cascading water pouring from what looks like its yawning mouth.
You won’t believe it, but the interior of the cave is half museum, half waterpark. You’ll hike, crawl, swim and slide over moss-covered rocks and through tranquil lagoons, spotting 1,000-year-old pots and ceramic plates along the way. And don’t freak out, but you may occasionally feel a bat or otter speed by. For the most part, you’re free to roam the 1.5-kilometer passage to a massive cave called The Cathedral.
This full skeleton of a young Maya girl sacrificed more than 1,000 years ago lies in a reclined position.
It’s Not Iron Maiden, But It’s SO Much Better!
Here is where you will find one of the cave’s “highlights,” a stark reminder of how times have changed. Known as the Crystal Maiden, this full skeleton of a young Maya girl sacrificed more than 1,000 years ago lies in a reclined position, her shimmering bones now calcified as if part of the rock formations. She glitters in the rays of your headlamp—beautiful, ethereal, unforgettable. Just like the cave itself. This is an awesome Mayan adventure you will definitely add to your favorite travel experiences. Trust us!